Rating: Brutal Violence, Sexual Content, Substance Abuse
Run Time: 130 minutes
“No nation, savage or civilized, save only the United States of America, has confessed its inability to protect its women save by hanging, shooting, and burning alleged offenders.”
- Ida B. Wells
Save Heaven and Earth and Natural Born Killers, Oliver Stone rarely designates a woman as the voice of his story. But in his latest film Savages, our guiding light is Ophelia (Blake Lively), whose voiceover is no bland expository plot device to recap the sum of events. Rather, she bestows Savages with its sole morsel of melancholy: “Just because I’m telling you this story”, she woes, “doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it.”
Fitting considering Savages, an exotic and borderline-great romp and Stone-r movie, isn’t a tale for the living. Only survivors. It pits itself between a drug cartel in California and Mexico, neither exclusively savage or civilized. The movie finds Stone returning to the brutality and vulgar wisdom of Scarface, cinema’s greatest fable of greed (of which he wrote). Savage’s characters, like Tony Montana, are feverishly hauled down their ‘savage’ paths by a desperate desire to protect a woman.
In another director’s hands, this could be the next Smokin’ Aces. Or, to the contrary, it could play too safe and become just a heavy-handed screed on geopolitics and the ruthlessness of the drug wars. But Stone’s style denies any formal structuring, breaking away from the rhyme and reason of well-intentioned political pieces. His visual style is kinetic, his characters deliciously mannered, and the violence and language vicious yet earned under these amoral circumstances.
Savages is in the spirit of pulpy noir, which could turn off fans of Don Winslow’s original novel. But Winslow, who cowrote the script with Stone and Shane Salerno, participates in turning this ideally tragic story into a celebratory standoff between gun and gun. Stone exaggerates the plot and personalities, but does it in a way that is, you know, fun.
There aren’t really heroes and villains, albeit Benicio del Toro’s Lado makes a good case for himself to the latter. Everyone here is consumed by a primal drive for wealth and power. But it takes California marijuana runners Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), the deux in Ophelia’s ménage a trois, about two-thirds of Savages to join the team; eventually, they come to accept one of Mr. Montana’s salient philosophies: never underestimate the other guy’s greed.
Stone crafts a taut crime drama drenched in irony, wit, and the occasional digression. The movie can be appallingly violent, especially in the scenes with the aforementioned Lado (del Toro), a Mexican drug cartel whose ruthless antics are humorously suppressed by the might of the cartel’s matriarch Elena (Salma Hayek), who – like Ben and Chon – pines for a woman herself, this being her estranged daughter. There’s also a DEA agent (John Travolta), who takes bribes from both sides and represents the film’s ambiguous moral shading.
Ben is more of an idealist, the Chico of the two; whereas, Chon is the hardheaded pragmatist, the Tony, who understands the odds and ends of this cruel business. The film errs slightly by not upping the tension between these two’s different takes on the business. Ben and Chon aren’t as interesting as characters who engage in their own moral tug-of-war. The fascination is largely with the Mexican cartel, who kidnap Ophelia when Ben and Chon don’t cooperate with Elena’s business demands. There is also something intriguing in the way Elena and Ophelia develop a twisted, Stockholm Syndrome-inspired connection.
Stone, a romantic of vice and carnage, knowingly basks in this lifestyle. He doesn’t make excuses for himself. But his manic, Natural Born Killers-esque style favours his wild mindset. Scenes unfold through an eclectic array of visual modes: surveillance, cell phone and Skype cameras, distorted colour schemes, morph transitions, and hallucinatory dutch angles. This style-of-all-sorts somehow flows beautifully and with great discipline. This is a true example of a mature filmmaker confidently enabling a past technique.
Savages doesn’t feel like some artsy-fartsy postmodern experiment. It’s a cheeky, aggressively good entertainment that shows Stone back in form. Stone’s plot should ramble, but it feels viciously tight, crafted with the bloodshot disorientation vision of cocaine eyes. This all complimented by action scenes harnessed with all-out energy, that carry the raw realism and intensity of first-rate Michael Mann.
The finale is in the tradition of unreliable narrators, where the logic of the plot performs a double take. Suddenly, the resolutions of romance and tragedy amusingly overlap and irony makes its last cry. The results may split viewers, as Savages ends not with a take-home lesson but in reverie to a cover of The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”. Almost the way Carlito imagined his woman, Gail, dancing freely on a beach to “You Are So Beautiful” by Joe Cocker in Brian De Palma’s great 1993 crime film “Carlito’s Way”. We may be savages, yes, but as Ophelia finally reminds us: “beautiful savages”.